A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


It must have been after the Sing–Sing episode that Gussy came to us, in New York, for Sundays and holidays, from scarce further off than round the corner — his foreign Institution flourishing, I seem to remember, in West Tenth Street or wherever — and yet as floated by exotic airs and with the scent of the spice-islands hanging about him. He was being educated largely with Cubans and Mexicans, in those New York days more than half the little flock of the foreign Institutions in general; over whom his easy triumphs, while he wagged his little red head for them, were abundantly credible; reinforced as my special sense of them was moreover by the similar situation of his sister, older than he but also steeped in the exotic medium and also sometimes bringing us queer echoes of the tongues. I remember being deputed by my mother to go and converse with her, on some question of her coming to us, at the establishment of Madame Reichhardt (pronounced, à la française, Réchard,) where I felt that I had crossed, for the hour, the very threshold of “Europe”; it being impressed on me by my cousin, who was tall and handsome and happy, with a laugh of more beautiful sound than any laugh we were to know again, that French only was speakable on the premises. I sniffed it up aromatically, the superior language, in passage and parlour — it took the form of some strong savoury soup, an educational potage Réchard that must excellently have formed the taste: that was again, I felt as I came away, a part of the rich experience of being thrown in tender juvenile form upon the world. This genial girl, like her brother, was in the grand situation of having no home and of carrying on life, such a splendid kind of life, by successive visits to relations; though neither she nor Gussy quite achieved the range of their elder brother, “Bob” of that ilk, a handsome young man, a just blurred, attractive, illusive presence, who hovered a bit beyond our real reach and apparently displayed the undomesticated character at its highest. He seemed exposed, for his pleasure — if pleasure it was! — and my wonder, to every assault of experience; his very name took on, from these imputations, a browner glow; and it was all in the right key that, a few years later, he should, after “showing some talent for sculpture,” have gone the hapless way of most of the Albany youth, have become a theme for sad vague headshakes (kind and very pitying in his case) and died prematurely and pointlessly, or in other words, by my conception, picturesquely. The headshakes were heavier and the sighs sharper for another slim shade, one of the younger and I believe quite the most hapless of those I have called the outstanding ones; he too, several years older than we again, a tormenting hoverer and vanisher; he too charmingly sister’d, though sister’d only, and succumbing to monstrous early trouble after having “shown some talent” for music. The ghostliness of these æsthetic manifestations, as I allude to them, is the thinnest conceivable chip of stray marble, the faintest far-off twang of old chords; I ask myself, for the odd obscurity of it, under what inspiration music and sculpture may have tinkled and glimmered to the Albany ear and eye (as we at least knew those organs) and with what queer and weak delusions our unfortunates may have played. Quite ineffably quaint and falot this proposition of that sort of resource for the battle of life as it then and there opened; and above all beautifully suggestive of our sudden collective disconnectedness (ours as the whole kinship’s) from the American resource of those days, Albanian or other. That precious light was the light of “business” only; and we, by a common instinct, artlessly joining hands, went forth into the wilderness without so much as a twinkling taper.

Our consensus, on all this ground, was amazing — it brooked no exception; the word had been passed, all round, that we didn’t, that we couldn’t and shouldn’t, understand these things, questions of arithmetic and of fond calculation, questions of the counting-house and the market; and we appear to have held to our agreement as loyally and to have accepted our doom as serenely as if our faith had been mutually pledged. The rupture with my grandfather’s tradition and attitude was complete; we were never in a single case, I think, for two generations, guilty of a stroke of business; the most that could be said of us was that, though about equally wanting, all round, in any faculty of acquisition, we happened to pay for the amiable weakness less in some connections than in others. The point was that we moved so oddly and consistently — as it was our only form of consistency — over our limited pasture, never straying to nibble in the strange or the steep places. What was the matter with us under this spell, and what the moral might have been for our case, are issues of small moment, after all, in face of the fact of our mainly so brief duration. It was given to but few of us to be taught by the event, to be made to wonder with the last intensity what had been the matter. This it would be interesting to worry out, might I take the time; for the story wouldn’t be told, I conceive, by any mere rueful glance at other avidities, the preference for ease, the play of the passions, the appetite for pleasure. These things have often accompanied the business imagination; just as the love of life and the love of other persons, and of many of the things of the world, just as quickness of soul and sense, have again and again not excluded it. However, it comes back, as I have already hinted, to the manner in which the “things of the world” could but present themselves; there were not enough of these, and they were not fine and fair enough, to engage happily so much unapplied, so much loose and crude attention. We hadn’t doubtless at all a complete play of intelligence — if I may not so far discriminate as to say they hadn’t; or our lack of the instinct of the market needn’t have been so much worth speaking of: other curiosities, other sympathies might have redressed the balance. I make out our young cousin J. J. as dimly aware of this while composing the light melodies that preluded to his extinction, and which that catastrophe so tried to admonish us to think of as promising; but his image is more present to me still as the great incitement, during the few previous years, to our constant dream of “educational” relief, of some finer kind of social issue, through Europe.

It was to Europe J. J. had been committed; he was over there forging the small apologetic arms that were so little to avail him, but it was quite enough for us that he pointed the way to the Pension Sillig, at Vevey, which shone at us, from afar, as our own more particular solution. It was true that the Pension Sillig figured mainly as the solution in cases of recognised wildness; there long flourished among New York parents whose view of such resources had the proper range a faith in it for that complaint; and it was as an act of faith that, failing other remedies, our young wifeless uncle, conscious himself of no gift for control or for edification, had placed there his difficult son. He returned with delight from this judicious course and there was an hour when we invoked, to intensity, a similar one in our own interest and when the air of home did little but reflect from afar the glitter of blue Swiss lakes, the tinkle of cattle-bells in Alpine pastures, the rich bonhomie that M. Sillig, dispensing an education all of milk and honey and edelweiss and ranz-desvaches, combined with his celebrated firmness for tough subjects. Poor J. J. came back, I fear, much the same subject that he went; but he had verily performed his scant office on earth, that of having brought our then prospect, our apparent possibility, a trifle nearer. He seemed to have been wild even beyond M. Sillig’s measure — which was highly disappointing; but if we might on the other hand be open to the reproach of falling too short of it there were establishments adapted to every phase of the American predicament; so that our general direction could but gain in vividness. I think with compassion, altogether, of the comparative obscurity to which our eventual success in gathering the fruits, few and scant though they might be, thus relegates those to whom it was given but to toy so briefly with the flowers. They make collectively their tragic trio: J. J. the elder, most loved, most beautiful, most sacrificed of the Albany uncles; J. J. the younger — they were young together, they were luckless together, and the combination was as strange as the disaster was sweeping; and the daughter and sister, amplest of the “natural,” easiest of the idle, who lived on to dress their memory with every thread and patch of her own perfect temper and then confirm the tradition, after all, by too early and woeful an end.

If it comes over me under the brush of multiplied memories that we might well have invoked the educational “relief” I just spoke of, I should doubtless as promptly add that my own case must have been intrinsically of the poorest, and indeed make the point once for all that I should be taken as having seen and felt much of the whole queerness through the medium of rare inaptitudes. I can only have been inapt, I make out, to have retained so positively joyless a sense of it all, to be aware of most of it now but as dim confusion, as bewildered anxiety. There was interest always, certainly — but it strikes me today as interest in everything that wasn’t supposedly or prescriptively of the question at all, and in nothing that was so respectably involved and accredited. Without some sharpness of interest I shouldn’t now have the memories; but these stick to me somehow with none of the hard glue of recovered “spirits,” recovered vivacities, assurances, successes. I can’t have had, through it all, I think, a throb of assurance or success; without which, at the same time, absurdly and indescribably, I lived and wriggled, floundered and failed, lost the clue of everything but a general lucid consciousness (lucid, that is, for my tender years;) which I clutched with a sense of its value. What happened all the while, I conceive, was that I imagined things — and as if quite on system — wholly other than as they were, and so carried on in the midst of the actual ones an existence that somehow floated and saved me even while cutting me off from any degree of direct performance, in fact from any degree of direct participation, at all. There presumably was the interest — in the intensity and plausibility and variety of the irrelevance: an irrelevance which, for instance, made all pastors and masters, and especially all fellow-occupants of benches and desks, all elbowing and kicking presences within touch or view, so many monsters and horrors, so many wonders and splendours and mysteries, but never, so far as I can recollect, realities of relation, dispensers either of knowledge or of fate, playmates, intimates, mere coævals and coequals. They were something better — better above all than the coequal or coæval; they were so thoroughly figures and characters, divinities or demons, and endowed in this light with a vividness that the mere reality of relation, a commoner directness of contact, would have made, I surmise, comparatively poor. This superior shade of interest was not, none the less, so beguiling that I recall without unmitigated horror, or something very like it, a winter passed with my brother at the Institution Vergnès; our sorry subjection to which argues to my present sense an unmitigated surrounding aridity. To a “French school” must have been earnestly imputed the virtue of keeping us in patience till easier days should come; infinitely touching our parents’ view of that New York fetish of our young time, an “acquisition of the languages”— an acquisition reinforcing those opportunities which we enjoyed at home, so far as they mustered, and at which I have briefly glanced. Charming and amusing to me indeed certain faint echoes, wavering images, of this superstition as it played about our path: ladies and gentlemen, dimly foreign, mere broken syllables of whose names come back to me, attending there to converse in tongues and then giving way to others through failures of persistence — whether in pupils or preceptors I know not. There hovers even Count Adam Gurowski, Polish, patriotic, exiled, temporarily famous, with the vision of his being invoked for facility and then relinquished for difficulty; though I scarce guess on which of his battle-grounds — he was so polyglot that he even had a rich command of New Yorkese.


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